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Braves trim Senators

PITTSFIELD — Shaquille Ardrey made sure there would be a new Western Massachusetts and State Division II boys’ basketball champion this season.

The junior guard from Taconic High School scored a game-high 27 points to lead the fourth-seeded Braves to a 57-50 victory over defending champion Mahar Regional School on Thursday night.

Ardrey’s performance barely overshadowed that of Mahar’s Joey Whitman, the lone returning starter from last year’s Senator team that went all the way to win the state final. Whitman, playing in his final game for the Senators did his best to keep the fifth-seeded Senators within striking distance. Whitman finished with a team-high 25 points and grabbed 12 boards in his final game.

The Senators (15-6) struggled all night to get any offensive rhythm going, and many of their possessions led to bringing the shot clock down to single digits and firing an off-balanced or contested shot. Taconic, meanwhile, was able to create shots much of the time, using a pair of quick guards to break down the Mahar defense. Add to that junior center Mike Taylor (6 points, 10 rebounds), a large body in the middle, and it was the recipe for victory.

The defending champs got off to a slow start and were never able to overcome it. The Braves (13-8) came out on fire, taking advantage of missed shots and turnovers by the Senators to take a 14-0 lead. Mahar was held scoreless for nearly the first six minutes of the game, finally getting on the board when backup center Jake Paul (6 points) buried a 3-pointer with 2:05 left in the first. The Braves would take a 14-5 lead into the second quarter.

“I know these guys, they were all nervous,” Whitman said. “It was their first postseason game, and it was jitters for them.”

The struggles continued in the second quarter, where Taconic never allowed Mahar to close any closer than seven points. The issue facing the Senators came in the form of Ardrey, who, along with senior backcourt mate Treyvon Sims, continually used dribble-penetration to beat Mahar’s perimeter defenders and get to the hoop. When the duo weren’t finishing off the drives, they were fouled by Mahar defenders, sending them to the line, where they proved to be deadly. Ardrey went 3-for-3 from the line in the second quarter and finished 9-of-11 for the game. Sims added 11 points in the victory, going 2-for-3 from the line. In all, the Braves made 15 free throws on 20 attempts (75 percent) for the game.

“We threw everything we had at them, but we just couldn’t figure it out,” Mahar coach Chad Softic said. “Our guys were getting beat and we either fouled or let them have easy baskets. That being said, we also failed to get after some loose balls that we could have gotten, especially when we cut their lead to three in the third.”

Another issue for the Senators was that while Whitman was getting his points, guards Brendin Woodard and Nick Slattery were unable to find their shots. Woodard averaged 12.2 points during the regular season, but had only scored two points through the first three quarters on Thursday night before netting eight in the fourth quarter to finish with 10. Slattery averaged 7.9 points on the season, but had been hot during the final four games, scoring in double figures in three of them to help the Senators break out of a season-long scoring slump. Slattery managed just three made free throws on the night for all of his points.

Taconic would take a 25-15 lead into the break, but things opened up in the second half as the Senators tried to claw their way back into the game. And claw their way back they did. The two teams traded baskets in the opening minute of the third quarter, including an and-one by the Braves that put them up 28-17, but the Senators went on a 8-0 run over the next three minutes to pull within 28-25 with four minutes left in the third. The teams would trade a pair of baskets over the next two minutes as Mahar still trailed by three, 32-29, with 2:05 remaining. Taconic would push the lead back to seven with a 5-1 run in the final two minutes that had the Braves looking at a 37-30 lead entering the fourth.

The final quarter proved to be wild, but Mahar was unable to get any closer than six points. Taconic opened on a 6-0 run as Ardrey scored on a runner and was fouled, and Tyler Murphy drained a 3-pointer for his first points of the night to give the Braves a 43-30 edge. Mahar countered with a 7-0 run to cut the deficit back to six, but the Braves stiffened on defense and never let Mahar get any closer.

Taconic moves on to play top-seeded Greenfield High School (19-2) in the Division II semifinals at Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst next week. No date or time has yet been announced.

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